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"He wouldn't believe you!" interposed Sheba, huskily.
"He wouldn't at first, but when I did tell en about the watch an' about the bit of a note he wrote ye, what ye had hid away—”
"Father, you didn't tell en that!" exclaimed the girl-the words came in a sort of cry, but Mr. Baverstock, being now in the mood to prove his own powers of argument, continued emphatically
"Didn't I though? "Twas that what done the job. 'Well,' he says, 'I'll think on it'!-Why Sheba, what be the matter, my maid? What do make 'ee look at I like that?"
"Because I'll never forgive ye." she cried passionately: "never, never! Oh! it was wicked!"
"He'll be no husband o' mine." said Sheba. "Never! No, Father, I haven't fell so low as to let any man take me out o' charity. Ye've shamed mebrought me down to the dust, ye have, but I bain't come to that-I'll tell en so this very evenin'-I'll not let another night go over my head without his knowin'! I'll never eat another mouthful in his house, nor take another penny of his money. You an' me 'ull go on the tramp again-we'll earn our own livin' wi'out bein' beholdin' to Stephen Hardy."
"On the tramp!" gasped Baverstock. "Why, what good will that do us?"
"It'll do us that much good that I can get away from this place where I can never hold up my head again. We bain't beggars that we need live on Farmer Hardy's charity-'tis naught but that-naught but charity. We'll
pack up to-morrow, and get the wold cart out an' see if us can't find a home where the folks won't be lookin' down on us."
She had dashed across the room while speaking, and possessed herself of her hat, and as the last words fell disjointedly from her lips, she opened the house door and rushed out.
Richard sat staring at the door with starting eyeballs and a dropping jaw, and presently began to cry like a child. Was there ever such a hard case as his? Deprived in five minutes not only of a prospective son-in-law and the hope of the comfortable home which, his daughter's obstinacy once conquered, could at any moment be theirs, but of all sense of security. They were to leave even the miserable roof which now sheltered them and to start again on their precarious wandering life.
"We'll get the wold cart out again," Sheba had said. Well did Richard know the discomfort of travelling in that old cart, and the hardships it entailed-cold, hunger, wet-while those occasional "tuppences" which alone brightened his existence were doled out at ever-lengthening intervals. They had often wandered thus for weeks at a time, halting at different places, and obtaining employment in potato-getting, or turnip-hoeing; formerly Sheba had occasionally persuaded her father to assist in these labors; in his present crippled condition that would be impossible; nevertheless, it would be almost as bad to sit shivering in the wagon or by the roadside, as he would probably be made to do now.
If he could only find his crutch, he would hobble off to the Blue Fox in search of the only consolation known to him, but it was Sheba's custom to hide it away in her room whenever she left home. Without its support her untrustworthy parent was comparatively harmless and previous to her en
forced absences she was wont to lock her door and carry off the key in her pocket. It was, indeed, unlikely that Richard, in his decrepit state, could have climbed the ladder leading to her room, but he had shown himself on various occasions so artful in his endeavors to circumvent her that she took care to provide against even the seemingly impossible.
As Baverstock, in the intervals of wiping his bleared eyes, suffered them to wander round the room, they fell all at once upon the door in question, and, starting from his chair, he exclaimed aloud:—
"Why, she've a-forgot to take key wi' her this time!"
In her frenzied anguish and excitement Sheba had, indeed, forgotten her usual precaution.
Baverstock's tears stopped as though by magic, and a cunning grin twisted his mouth as he shuffled across the room, supporting himself on the various pieces of furniture, and reaching the stairs, dragged himself slowly up them.
Sheba's room was but a small one, and the crutch was not very cunningly concealed, but stood propped up by the bed.
before Sheba put her threat into execution-that was the puzzle.
"Maybe I mid find some one to advise me at the Blue Fox," he said to himself.
But, strange to say, although some of his cronies were weak enough to treat him, he received neither sympa. thy nor proffers of help. Even the boozers gathered together at the Blue Fox had conceived a certain respect for the girl whose self-sacrifice was known to all the country-side, and they refused to abet her father in circumventing her.
Richard was inebriated but not exhilarated when, at the landlord's instance, he took his way home again, a thousand wild projects forming themselves in his muddled brain, all dealing with the wished-for abolition of the detested cart, but each in turn being rejected as unfeasible.
"It'll come to I yet, though," said Richard, as he stumbled across his own threshold. "It'll come to I if I do think long enough."
Mrs. Hardy was sitting by the window, making the most of the fading light, and humming to herself as she neatly inserted a patch in one of her best pillow-slips; suddenly she heard the outer door open and shut with a bang, and Sheba burst into the room.
"Back again, my dear?" said Rebecca, looking up in placid surprise. "I thought you reckoned to bide at home this afternoon."
"Ah," chuckled Richard, "she did think I couldn't get up the stairs, and she did take advantage of I."
Having possessed himself of the needful support, he descended with great caution, and hobbled promptly out of doors. As he passed the shed, from which a portion of the battered wagon protruded, he paused to shake his fist at it.
"I'll get the better on ye yet!" he cited, miserable. cried.
All the way to the Blue Fox he cogitated on the possibility of destroying the wagon. If that were once got rid of Sheba could not "toll him off" round the country. But how to get rid of it in the short time which must elapse
Sheba looked round the room, her eyes were strained, her face eager, ex
"Bain't Stephen here?"
"Nay, love, he bain'. He be out somewhere about the place."
"He bain't, though," returned Sheba. "I've been huntin' all round for nigh on an hour an' I can't find him nowheres."
"No, nor you won't," agreed Mrs. Hardy, suddenly recollecting herself. "He've a-rode off to Wimborne-I mind it now. He did get up directly after dinner, and said he mid be back late for tea."
Sheba uttered an impatient exclamation.
"Why, whatever be to do love?" asked Mrs. Hardy in surprise. "Be summat amiss?"
"Everything's amiss," said Sheba.
"Dear, dear, that's bad," returned Rebecca, laying aside her work and going towards her. "Couldn't ye tell me about it, maidie-there, it 'ud ease your mind."
"No, no, you can't do nothin'," said Sheba, with a stifled sob. "'Ees, ye mid do one thing though. Ye mid ax Stephen to come over to our place so soon as he do come in."
"Why, that'll be late, my dear, an' he've a-had a long day."
"Oh, I can't help that. I took an oath I'd not let another night go over my head wi'out makin' an end of all between us. If he don't care to hear it from my own lips, if it be too late an' he be too tired to come to me, ye can tell him so from me, Mrs. Hardy."
"Dear heart alive!" gasped Rebecca in deep distress. "I thought you an' Stephen did seem to be gettin' on so well. Whatever have he done to you, my dear?"
"He'll know," rejoined Sheba. "He won't be surprised. Tell him, tell him I've heard summat as I didn't know before, tell him-well, I'll tell him myself if he'll come-an' if he don't want to come, it is enough he should know as him an' me's to part."
Before Rebecca could recover from her amazement the girl had rushed away as impetuously as she had come.
hastened down the path to the Little Farm.
Left alone, Rebecca cogitated for some moments, and then, folding up the pillowslip very neatly, took down her shawl from its accustomed peg and
Without even going through the form of summoning Louisa she thrust her head in at the sitting-room door, and discovered Kitty alone by the fire. Coming cautiously in, and flattening her back against the door, which she had closed behind her as though to prevent any intrusion, she hailed her, breathlessly.
"Where be sister, Miss Kitty?"
Kitty looked up, startled; it was long, very long, since Mrs. Hardy had visited the Little Farm, and now her sudden appearance, coupled with her mysterious air and evident agitation, alarmed the girl.
"Is anything the matter? Bess has got a headache and is lying down upstairs. Do you want her, Mrs. Hardy?"
"No, dear, no. I were looking for a few words wi' you, if you can spare me a minute."
"Certainly," said Kitty anxiously. "Sit down do. I am glad to see you. It's a long time since you have been here."
"It be a long time," agreed Rebecca. "I'd not ha' put myself forward now but-well, it do seem a queer thing to trouble ye about, but there, I be a bit upset, ye see-well not exactly upset, but took aback-I don't seem to make head or tail o' this here business."
"But what is it, Mrs. Hardy?"
"Well, 'tis about Sheba and Stephen, Miss Kitty-'twasn't a thing I did ever look for, an' 'twasn't, I mid say, exactly what I did wish for, but there, she was his own choice, what he did pick out for hisself, an' it didn't become me to go a-turning up my nose. I can't forget how kind and respectful Stephen have always showed hisself to I though he mid ha' looked higher for his father."
Kitty was too much astonished and concerned to smile at what might oth
erwise have struck her as a somewhat quaint idea.
"Sheba was his ch'ice," resumed Rebecca, "an' I did think she'd make him so good a wife as another. An' her mother was a nice woman an' belonged to a good family. "Twas but her father as stood f' the road, an' she'd settled not to get married while he was livin', it did seem to be jist a question of how long the owd gentleman 'ud last. Well, but she comes here to-day in sich a takin' as never wasdownright wild she did look, an' she'd a-been huntin' about for Stephen, an' when she couldn't find en, she bid me tell him straight out the minute I see him as all was over between them." "Why, what's the meaning of that?" cried Kitty, much startled.
"I'm sure I can't tell ye," said Mrs. Hardy, shaking her head portentously; then, after a pause, she continued slowly: "I thought maybe you mid be able to throw some light on it."
"I!" exclaimed Kitty.
Rebecca continued to wag her head, but this time as an indication of some arch under-meaning, while a semi-jocular smile played about her lips. After a moment, seeing the girl's evident annoyance, she became more serious, and, bending forward, whispered in her
"It mayn't be your fault, my dearI'm sure it bain't your fault-but Sheba be terr'ble jealous o' you."
"Oh! Mrs. Hardy!" gasped poor Kitty, crimson.
"Well, I scarce like to say sich a thing, Miss Kitty, an' I do hope ye'll not take it as a insult, but there was one time when Stephen thought the very world o' you."
There was a time-but how long ago! "He doesn't think much of me now," said Kitty, after a pause.
"No, to be sure not, my dear," agreed Rebecca, dubiously. "But there was a time. Of course I'm not sayin' there
ever could ha' been anything serious in it-ye wouldn't ha' fancied the notion most like, an' I reckon Stephen 'ud never ha' dared to look so high-though a young lady mid do worse nor Stephen, an' he bain't, so to speak, a common man. But I'm not talkin' about that," she added hastily, noting Kitty's increasing discomfiture. "I'm only saying there was a time-I used to notice Stephen coloring up when ye came nigh the place, an' listening for your voice, an' lookin' up at your windows, an' a-makin' hisself so smart whenever he were takin' ye out ridin' an' sich-like. And I d' 'low Sheba must ha' noticed summat too, an' it do keep comin' back to her mind like-most onraysonable, for she hasn't no cause not to feel sure o' he."
"No, indeed," repeated Mrs. Hardy, sucking in her breath. "An' to-day when she came burstin' in, she talked o' having heard summat which she never knowed before."
"But it couldn't-it couldn't have been anything about Farmer Hardy and me," stammered Kitty.
"Well, I don't know I'm sure. Folks about here d' seem to have sharp eyes an' long tongues. Nay now, miss, dear, I don't want to frighten ye, nor to offend ye neither-I only say maybe somebody put some sich notion in Sheba's head, an' it'll be a pity if she goes an' picks a quarrel wi' Stephen along o' that. Stephen, he bain't a man what'll stand no nonsense, an' if she did tell en to his face she wanted to break wi' en, so like as not he'd take her at her word."
Kitty returned her puzzled look with one still more perturbed-with even a kind of terror.
"But what can I do, Mrs. Hardy?" she faltered at length; then, dropping her eyes, "why do you come to me?"
"Well, my dear," said Rebecca slowly, "I hope ye'll not think it terr'
ble impudent o' me-but the thought
did cross my mind that mayhap ye'd be willin' to say a word to Sheba as 'ud put things to rights. If ye was to say to her straight out summat o' this kind-'I know ye've got some notion in your head about Stephen Hardy an' me, but I do assure 'ee it is all stuff an' nonsense'-she couldn't but believe the word of a young lady like you, an' the thing would blow over."
"Very well," said Kitty, in a low voice, "I'll go to her now."
"It's not so very dark," said Mrs. Hardy, with an anxious glance through the window which belied her words. "If ye was to run straight there an' back, Miss Leslie dear, ye'd get home afore 'twas real late. welcome, only, if she she'd think I'd put ye wouldn't do no good.
I'd go wi' ye an' was to see me, up to it, an' that An' I'd tell you to wait till to-morrow only ye see she bid me send Stephen to her the minute he comed whoam, an' if he don't go she'll be back here arter him, an' then all the fat 'ud be in the fire-otherways I'd never ax ye to be out so late.”
"I'll go now," rejoined Kitty, rising quickly.
Her hat and jacket lay on the sofa where she had thrown them down halfan-hour previously on coming in from the garden. Mrs. Hardy now helped her to put them on so eagerly that the girl was infected by her haste, and started off almost at a run. As she sped through the shadowy hedges and across the dim fields she kept repeating. to herself:
"I must stop it, I must stop it!" She must, if possible, avert the mischief which no doubt she had unwittingly caused. She should have left the neighborhood before; she must tell Sheba that she really would go now. The door was ajar when she reached the cottage, and, to her horror, she caught sight of old Baverstock standing by the table. She hesitated for
a moment and then knocked. Richard made a staggering step towards the door, uttering some inarticulate remark in a very husky voice; he was evidently drunk. Rallying all her courage, however, the girl stepped in, looking anxiously round the room, which was lit only by the glow of the wood fire, though from a strong smell of paraffin Kitty inferred that Baverstock had been endeavoring to light the lamp.
"Sheba!" she called timidly, then raising her voice in her alarm, "Sheba !” "Sheba!" echoed Baverstock raucously.
The door at the top of the ladderstairs opened and Sheba looked down at them.
"Who wants me?" she cried. "Is it you, Stephen?"
"It's I-Kitty Leslie, I only want to see you for one moment-can I come up?"
Kitty was indeed already halfway up the ladder.
"I'm busy," returned Sheba, "I've all my packing up to do. I haven't time for talk. We're going to trant out o' this to-morrow.”
"I only want to say a few words," persisted Kitty.
She had reached the top of the crazy stairs by this time, and now, with unusual boldness, pushed past Sheba into the tiny bedroom.
"Be quick, then," said the other, closing the door.
Richard stared after them.
"Well I'm dalled," he muttered. "She be reg'lar set on't! "Trant out o' this to-morrow,' will we? There's two words to that."
His indignation seemed partially, to sober him. After a long pause, during which he remained staring vengefully at the door of Sheba's room, his countenance cleared. The key was still sticking on the outside of the lock! Baverstock kicked off his heavy boots, and, going to the ladder, dragged himself up